This is where we stand, and it's a fairly bleak view: "Peak oil" -- the concept that the globe's oil supplies are finite and will, perhaps sooner rather than later, run out entirely -- is almost here. Nothing new (with the possible but unlikely exception of Iraq) is coming online anytime soon. And while the clock is ticking, forward movement on developing renewable energy resources has been sadly inadequate. In the meantime, the idea that shale reservoirs will lead the US to energy independence will soon enough be recognized as unrealistic hype. There are no easy solutions, no viable quick fixes, and no magic fluids. Yet the future isn't all doom and gloom: Certain energy technologies do show promise. We had a chance to speak with well-known energy expert Dave Summers, where we cut through the media noise and take a realistic look at what our energy future holds.
Dr. Dave Summers — scientist, prolific writer and author of "Waterjetting Technology" — is the co-founder of energy discussion website The Oil Drum and currently writes at the popular energy blog Bit Tooth Energy. From a family of nine generations of coal miners, Summers' patented waterjetting technology enables the high-speed drilling of small holes through the earth, among other applications.
Oilprice.com: What do you foresee in our energy future? Will new extraction techniques and advances in drilling technology help put off peak oil?
Dave Summers: Most of the "innovation" in energy extraction from underground has been known for some time. It's just taken time to work its way through to large-scale market use. There are techniques such as in-situ combustion, whether of coal or oil sand, that are now being developed that show some promise. But each increment of gain is at higher cost, and is chasing after a smaller target volume. Even if better methods of drilling were developed (and we have looked at several) in the cost of overall production this would not, in itself, provide that much benefit.
If ways could be found to economically release more hydrocarbon from existing and drilled reservoirs, then that might have a significant impact, but though this has been sought after with lots of effort, there has been no magic fluid or way of doing that yet.
Peak oil is about here. Though we can argue about fractions of a million barrels of day, it is hard to find any large volumes that can be expected to come onto the market in the next decade (with the possible, though unlikely, exception of Iraq). The clock on this has been ticking for some time, and some of the moves toward increasing renewable energy sources (though motivated by a different driver) have helped mitigate some of the problem, but sadly not enough.
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Oilprice.com: Can the shale boom be replicated in Europe?
Dave Summers: The technology for developing the hydrocarbon volumes in tight shales and sands is now becoming well defined, and can thus be transferred to Europe. It will likely make that transition fairly quickly. That's why some countries have American partners in their development. However, the environmental movement that is strongly against the technology is more entrenched, and has more political clout in Europe, so this may slow the transfer.
At the same time, though there are significant volumes of shale, it is only after wells have been drilled and fracked that one can get an estimate as to whether or not the resource can be turned into a reserve. This information is still a bit sparse, and it makes it difficult to be definitive at this time.
Oilprice.com: Is the Keystone XL pipeline vital to the US quest for energy independence?
Dave Summers: The pipeline is something that is a convenience in getting more oil from Canada into U.S. refineries. There are other steps (pipelines now flowing backwards for example) that are being taken to deal with the situation. As long as the sole export market for the oil is into the United States, Canada has to take the price that it is offered for the oil, or not sell it. Should a second sales path (such as a pipeline to the coast) allow significant sales to other customers (say China) then the price will likely go up, and supplies to the US will get more expensive, and potentially smaller.
Oilprice.com: What happens if Keystone isn't approved – is there a plan B?
Dave Summers: On whose part? The Canadians will run a pipeline to the coast and make more money over time. In the short term, the US will be able to balance any shortfalls with domestic production, but in about three years, as that starts to fall off, then life might get more difficult. It takes a long time to develop a new resource.
Oilprice.com: How much of a role will fracking play in US efforts to reduce carbon emissions?
Dave Summers: Well, that is a little bit of a loaded question. Any drop in carbon dioxide levels that will come from changing from coal-fired power stations to gas-fired is not really going to be significant on a global level, and the changes are more likely be market driven, than for political reasons.
It is hard to see, basic operational costs being what they are, that the low price for natural gas can be sustained that much longer. Any slippage in the supply, however, will drive the price up and that will cause a re-equilibriation of the market. How that plays out against political considerations in the Eastern states is, as yet, anybody's guess.
Oilprice.com: If energy independence for the US comes at the cost of reducing carbon emissions, and vice versa, which target do you think they should aim for?
Dave Summers: The hope that hydrocarbon production from the shale reservoirs of the United States will lead to energy independence has about a couple of years of life yet before it is shown to be the unrealistic hype that it is.
The continuing rise in energy costs, both here and in Europe, is likely to continue to sap any strong drive toward growth and a rapid recovery from the events of 2008. This cost factor is not getting the recognition that it should, and this unrelenting drain on the global economies does not have an easy resolution. The quick fixes anticipated from investment in renewable energy has not been found to really help that much, and while every little bit helps, there are no magic solutions on the horizon that will help in the intermediate term and sooner.
And after a certain number of cold winters it becomes harder to convince the general populace that global warming remains a critical problem.
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Oilprice.com: Do you think the coal industry's days are numbered?
Dave Summers: Ultimately no, but in the short term there will be a reduction in demand for coal in Europe and the United States. But in the longer term there is still no viable replacement fuel that will meet the needs of the growing power markets in places such as China, India and most of Asia and Africa.
As the costs for imported fuels rise, the need to develop indigenous resources will become more vital, while the selection of the cheapest available import to sustain the competitiveness of domestic industries will likely surmount the pressures for change.
Oilprice.com: Many claim that oil consumption in the US will continue to soar to record levels, yet due to the fast rate of decline in production from fracking wells compared to traditional wells this seems unlikely. What do you predict will be the maximum oil production that the US could achieve?
Dave Summers: It is difficult to foresee where all the additional oil that will be needed to meet the projection of sustained growth in supply is likely to come from. Increasing production depends on finding enough people with enough money to fund the drilling costs, and without sustained successful investment, after a while the pool of likely investors shrinks.
Again I don't see the current trends being sustained for more than a couple of years, for that reason. It also requires good potential sites for drilling, and those are becoming smaller and harder to identify.
Oilprice.com: Which renewable energy technologies do you think hold the greatest potential to make a meaningful addition to global energy production?
Dave Summers: I have always thought that we did not take enough advantage of the underground. There is a small but growing use of geothermal energy (and ground source heat pumps) but there are other advantages to putting buildings and other construction underground that will likely eventually dawn on enough people that it will become a more sustainable industry.
But I have been waiting for that to happen for 40 years, and it may well take as long again before it comes to pass.
Oilprice.com: Who or what is the biggest obstacle to renewable energy?
Dave Summers: Depends on where you are. In Botswana it was finding folk to do the maintenance in the villages. I look out of my window at a snow-covered back yard, in a state where neither wind nor solar has much viability, hence the local university is installing a geothermal system. Where do I get the heat? From the surrounding forest, I purchase wood almost every year for use in a tile stove, and the firebox is wrapped in copper tubing. But, as the British experience showed centuries ago, burning wood is a luxury, and coal was cheaper, as the forests disappeared.
Sadly the folks that discuss future energy alternatives tend to come to the discussion with their own agendas, so that it is difficult to have an open discussion that does not end up in emotional argument.
The world desperately needs new forms of energy to replace those that are starting to run out. The time available before those needs become critical is getting shorter, and thus an open debate is vital. But because of the politics there have been a number of decisions to move technology forward before it was really ready, and that has hurt new development, and is likely to continue to do so.
Keeping solar panels clean without scratching and power degradation has been something I first discussed in an ASTM panel over 30 years ago. Maintenance is likely the biggest hidden problem at the moment.
Oilprice.com: Which geopolitical hotspots should we be keeping our eyes on over the coming year for potential problems?
Dave Summers: The situation in the China Sea is starting to become a greater concern, and it is a reflection more, I believe, of the potential energy sources under the sea, than it is for any particular right to own tiny islands in the middle of nowhere.
The Middle East is always a worry. Once the can of democracy was kicked open, the ways in which this will change things in the region can only be guessed at. Regime changes are rough and rarely run smoothly. Policy changes mean changes for investors, and there are many groups in the region that have little love for the United States or for many of the countries of Europe.
Oilprice.com: If energy demand around the world continues to grow at current rates, how do you imagine the future? Will it lead to war? Large differences between the top and bottom echelons of society? Wide spread starvation? Etc.
Dave Summers: Sadly, wars have been fought over resources since the beginning of time, and in the last few decades human nature has not changed that much. The impact of mass communication, and its global reach may make it easier to tell the people on both sides the "truth," which is always adjusted as a function of who is telling it, and the possible impact of fabricators over conventional manufacturing might, however, make more of an impact faster than currently anticipated.
The mass elevation of people into the middle class in Asia cannot be reversed, and the pressures that this will bring can provide unyielding momentum that leads to conflict, particularly where there is some control over communication.
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There have been enough breakthroughs in agriculture that the risks of mass starvation are fading, though the availability of water is a constant concern in a number of countries. Spreading information, and providing assistance at the lowest levels of production will come about with the spread of electronic communication and this will have a beneficial impact.
Oilprice.com: How has media manipulation figured in the climate change debate?
Dave Summers: As long as journalists are advocates rather than reporters the true story will not emerge. The lack of journalistic challenge in the mainstream media to the deliberate deception employed in hiding the decline in temperature prediction accuracy with the tree rings which dropped just as temperatures were rising, thus invalidating the "hockey stick," was an early indication that media manipulation was going to be a critical factor in this debate.
How long must global temperatures remain relatively stable before someone brings this up as a front page story? The amount of money involved with those who espouse anthropogenic causes of climate change dwarfs the funding that has gone to those who raise questions when so many papers so this "may" happen, and that "might" occur. And those who pay the bills . . .
Oilprice.com: Lockheed recently came out with a statement predicting that they will have a working nuclear fusion reactor within the next 10 years. If this prediction does come true – do you see this having any meaningful impact on the energy sector?
Dave Summers: Um! Nuclear fusion has been the next great thing in energy production for the full extent of my professional life. It is likely to continue to be so through the professional lives of my children, and likely grandchildren.
Oilprice.com: What are your thoughts on nuclear power? Is it essential to meet our growing energy demand?
Dave Summers: Nuclear power has a considerable potential to help solve some of the shortfalls in energy that are now appearing on the horizon. Unfortunately the long delays in construction, some of which are due to permitting issues that have become political footballs, make it a hard investment to justify.
The move to construction of smaller reactors may well have considerable benefit, and the development of thorium has also got its place. But to make progress requires political will, and that is sadly lacking, and will remain so until energy demand rubs the noses of the body politic in the reality that there is no ideal, only the viable.
Oilprice.com: Dave thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Hopefully we will have a chance to catch up later in the year.